This is one of the noteworthy days of the year, the fall equinox and the first day of fall. Like the spring equinox six months from now, day and night are roughly equal in length. The Bewick’s Wren is singing a more joyous song and the Oak Titmouse sings a combination of their spring halleluiahs with their raspy call notes. Nothing will come of it, of course, and the days will continue to grow shorter by two minutes a day until we are jolted by darkness falling by 7 PM.
In Santa Barbara on the south coast, a 100 miles west northwest of Los Angeles, fall doesn’t really show up until October, when the California grapevine turns red on the fence and the winter birds show up in the coastal gardens.
Over the last few days, Bay Area birders are plucking my heart strings by reporting the first Golden-crowned Sparrows of the season. I remember those chilly mornings in the Berkeley Hills when I would walk up the street towards the pasture whistling their song. If they had arrived in the early morning hours after a long night’s flight, they answered me with one or two minor key notes. I would yelp with joy and dance a quick jig. When I returned home, I made an entry in my notebook, circling the date in red.
It would be a few more days before the little flocks worked their way into the neighborhood to settle into their winter territories. I wondered if these birds were the ones that had come last year and maybe several years before. The good news was that they remained until mid or late April, developing the bright yellow crown, before departing for the far north. During the winter you could count on them singing just before it started to rain.
As far as I know there are no golden crowns in this neighborhood or even in Oak Park. They are most often reported in weedy fields in open areas like the upper Elings Park.
A single mature male has spent the summer feeding with several Song Sparrows in a clearing near Los Carneros Lake. Apparently, it declined to join the others of its kind for the migration north in April. Was he damaged in some way or simply lacked the normal instinct, the irresistible urge to migrate?
Hearing the Western Tanagers on the move, I will start listening for our winter birds, though I know it’s probably too early. I arrived at Samarkand as a reluctant migrant from Northern California at this time nine years ago. It was during the lull between the seasons. I was disconsolate. I looked for one familiar bird. Finally, there it was — a California Towhee scratching in the leaves alongside the pathway.
Something did arrive early this year, a substantial rain but with hardly a sprinkle here. Elsewhere, it was enough to signal the annual nuptial flight of the termites when some of these subterranean creatures grow a pair of gossamer wings for a day’s fling above ground in the bright air. The queen ascends high in the sky pursued by ardent males eager to mate with her. Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the termites resumed their lives in the dark with a pregnant queen, leaving behind a shimmering carpet of discarded wings.
I had assumed this early storm was like the ones to follow, moving down the coast from the north. But the cause was Hurricane Kay, an extensive, well-organized storm which had originated off the coast of Baja California, slowly weakening as it moved north to bring varying amounts of rain.
Nature sent us a consolation prize though — a double rainbow which felt more like a gateway to grander things.
After a rainless January and February, we were excited to learn that a storm was moving our way. I read that it was being carried down the coast by our old friend the “jet stream,” that fast-moving river of air moving from east to west which circulates around the globe often delivering weather systems to our coast. Or at least it used to.
The possibility of a storm deserved a morning sky watch. Soon after sunrise, I stepped outside on my balcony and aimed my camera at the sky and would continue to do so at hourly intervals until noon. As a long-time sky watcher (or storm watcher) in the Bay Area, the evidence was not encouraging.
Though winter storms generally form in the Gulf of Alaska and move down the West Coast, the winds that accompany them blow counterclockwise, so approaching storms are preceded by winds from the southeast. This morning the wind blew consistently from the northeast and was cold and dry, rather than moist and mild.
What I loved about most winter storms was the buildup that preceded the arrival of the storm itself. From my Bay Area hilltop house, I could scan the horizon from the south of San Francisco north past Mt. Tamalpais to Sonoma County. Not much escaped my attention.
The classical winter storm usually begins with high cirrus clouds often in fantastical shapes like wispy feathers. The clouds spread across the sky from north to south. At some point the wind begins, fluky at first before settling into gusts from the southeast growing in strength as the clouds thickened and lowered.
After years of living in Berkeley, I knew the wind direction without looking. An early October storm carried the strong, acidic odor of cooking tomatoes coming from the Heinz catsup plant in southwest Berkeley. If the wind was blowing from the northwest, it would carry the strong petroleum odors coming from the Chevron distillery in Richmond.
In Santa Barbara, where I have lived for 10 years, I smell mostly the odor of cooking tortillas and the scent of flowers. Sometimes the alarming smell of burning chaparral tells me there is a fire in the mountains. When the wind blows from the northwest during in the long summer, the air smells vaguely like ammonia or slightly salty of kelp drying on the beach. It feels heavy and damp.
I’ve often wondered why I am so exhilarated just before a storm. I dash around, bringing in outdoor furniture, rolling up outdoor shades and tying them tight. Hankering for the feel of soil, I plant that final sixpack of pansies ahead of the rain.
Now I’ve learned the likely cause of this joyous energy – negative ions. Negative ions associated with clouds and wind facilitate the transfer of oxygen to the cells. No wonder I’m so exhilarated. After a storm has passed, denied this extra oxygen, I descend into what I’ve always thought of as a post-storm slump.
None of this energy was associated with today’s morning’s storm watch which began with a few isolated clumps of white clouds and a wind that never shifted around to the southeast. Instead of the air warming as it usually does with an approaching storm, the wind rattling in the dry foliage was cold and odorless. By noon the clouds had mostly disappeared leaving only a few shards to help color the sunset.
Later I learned that the storm track was inland, bringing a dusting of snow to the higher coastal peaks while delivering generous, dry fluffy snow to the Sierra. I was disappointed after high hopes for a good rain, but I did enjoy the variety – a welcome relief from the still warm air from sunup to sunset.
TWO BOOKS FOR THE SKY WATCHER
The first book, sumptuously illustrated with clouds from around the world is titled: “The Cloud Collector’s Handbook,” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. It is the official publication of The Cloud Appreciation Society. The Brits do love their weather. Some photos and descriptions are of familiar clouds. One is so rare you have to travel to the north-east corner of Australia to see it.
Early November The resident hawk Repeats its urgent calls. Where is the rain? The temperature is above eighty. Night falls with red skies Color caught by the high cirrus clouds Too thin for rain.
With darkness comes The cricket stridulations, The final notes of the fading season
After midnight I step out on my porch, Looking high to the south. Orion waits, trailed by Sirius, The hunter’s faithful dog.
Venus will soon separate itself from the rising sun And before month’s end will shine alone In the eastern sky.
Once I’d imagined spending my final years In the town where I was born In a tiny house of my own design One room only With alcoves for bathing, sleeping, fixing tea A steep roof with a skylight or two A generous porch under a sheltering eave High in the Berkeley Hills,
But instead, my final years Will be spent in Santa Barbara in a spacious apartment One of many apartments For elders like myself, Close to family, a hedge against loneliness.
The geographer in me Wants to tell you That Santa Barbara is located At the southern end of central California. Maybe 50 miles below Pt Conception Where the coast bends inland Thanks to the San Andreas Fault Flexing its muscles. So now the coastal mountains run From east to west, and most confusing of all You look south if you want to see the ocean.
For me, the ocean has always been to the west, And the direction of the setting sun Where if you sail far enough You’ll bump into China.
The high Santa Ynez Mountains to the North shield the town from certain cold draughts. But in downpours, the mountains Shed all manner of debris From silt to sandstone boulders As big as cars.
Now as an amateur geologist, I’ll tell you that this knoll I call home, is surrounded By flatter land referred to As an alluvial fan, Crossed by creeks that Only show up when it rains.
Locals brag about the mild climate Forgetting about those vehement moments Of gale-force winds Called sundowners. Or what about the microbursts Which have been known to knock a plane Out of the sky?
And there’s nothing mild about my landscape. Never still — it twists, heaves and cracks. Worse, it is said that all the commotion Is bringing Los Angeles ever closer.
Once we were covered by a warm sea With dinosaurs wandering the shallows. Later mountains rose up, Full of seashells.
Now it seems that our future is drought.
I look out the east-facing windows Down into Oak Park with its Pale limbed-sycamores and faded foliage.
It’s a peoples’ park With mariachis on the weekend Shouting children, Birthdays with piñatas Quinceaneras, sometimes a funeral
Look up to the first ridge To St. Anthony’s towers And to the two rosy domes Of the old mission.
Higher yet is the bulk Of the Santa Ynez mountains and the conical shape Of my mountain – Montecito Peak See how the angled sun Deepens the canyons.
Slide your eyes sideways To where the mountains Slip into the blue line of the sea.
Now face south Over our native garden Bordered oaks from the park To the silent creek bed. I look for hummingbirds, bush rabbits and worry about coyotes
The east hills, called the Mesa Holds off the fog Until after dark, when the hills are breached.
Oh yes, my garden off the front door The narrow porch of a garden, Hung with red geraniums And softened by pots of ferns
I lie in my bed beneath the windows Hoping for wind to move the chimes. I lift my head at dawn. Do I see the silhouette of the mountains Against the lightening sky?
Or are we cocooned in the fog That drips from trees Almost as welcome as rain.
And what is the first bird this morning? The clink of the towhee The querulous wren The sweet ring of sparrows’ song?
Now you are hearing the voice of the birder Leaning on every song In the absence of good eyesight.
Acorn woodpecker, flicker With strong beak and loud call, Or the relentless caw of the black crow, Boss of the neighborhood?
Will I be lucky enough To have an owl’s hoot rouse me In the early morning hour?
I feather my nest With a down comforter Books, Bouquets of pungent sage, Baskets of lichen.
How do I finish this short tale? A day ending, I suppose. With the dark coming on by five A tale of rain arriving?
A gusty wind from the southeast Testing itself.
In the early morning hours Between midnight and dawn The rain falls I smell it first And then sweet fragrance of hope
Could this be The beginning of a season Of abundant rains Enough to end the drought?
COMING IN THE SPRING: The Best for Last: The Nature of Santa Barbara by Phila Rogers. Includes the blogs and a number of short pieces.
After such a sumptuous winter how could it not be – a perfect spring.
I came to Santa Barbara to live in September 2013, the second year of the drought. The landscape was dry, but as a native Californian, I expected dryness. The winter rains the next two years were scanty. Not only did the garden lawns die by intent, but landscape and street trees began suffering. Many of the redwoods, never a good choice for this semi-arid climate, were dying. The conifers were the hardest hit. The native ponderosa pines on Figueroa Mountain all succumbed, probably weakened by the drought and then attacked by the deadly bark beetle. To try and save street trees, the city attached green plastic reservoirs to young trees which slowly released water to the roots.
Maybe several times during the winter, enough rain would fall to feed the headwaters of various creeks. Mission Creek with its springs high on mountain sides above the Botanic Garden came briefly to life with muddy torrents of water which rushed down the dry creek bed. Quickly depleted, the flow stopped and by the second day, the creek became isolated pools. By the third day, the creek disappeared all together.
With the return to silent stretches of dry rock, my spirits fell. I realized again how above all the landscape features – hills, mountains, valleys, and especially the noisy, restless ocean – it is creeks I love the best, for their cheerful sounds and their ability to be a magnet for surrounding life.
Spring in California is mostly about wildflowers, but in one of the ironies of a wet spring, grass and weeds growing tall often concealed the flowers. Figueroa Mountain had some nice displays, particularly where lupine grew on perennial shrubs or where poppies grew on serpentine soil which inhibits the rampant growth of grass.
But it is in the exuberance of the commoner plants that I saw the results of a wet winter. The wild oats, now going to seed are waist high, and must compete for space with wild radishes and Italian thistle.
After four years of drought that tested their endurance, allowing no luxury like new growth, live oaks this spring were transformed with explosions of tender bright green leaves. The shiny leaves concealed the coarse and somber, dark green foliage, some of which could now be shed.
Live oaks are the most abundant native tree of Samarkand, Oak Park and most lowland locations.
Best of all was to see Mission Creek behaving like a real stream, not with just the episodic flow of two days that followed a rain during the preceding drought years. My morning ritual was to look through my binoculars into the small gap between the trees where I could see the overlapping brightness of moving water. The stream had a rhythm, sometimes squeezing around rocks making music and then released, spreading out in quiet pools, before being narrowed again. I think I could write a score with the proper notations.
I imagine my father, who grew up near Oak Park, capturing tadpoles with a net, or creating a new flow by rearranging rocks. When the flow was strongest, he and his buddies, no doubt, fashioned boats and then ran along the creek edge to see how they fared.
Two weeks after the last rain in March, the flow began to shrink, imperceptivity at first. But now in mid-April the creek has disappeared. Or, perhaps it flows beneath the surface still accessible to the roots of trees.
Speculation has already begun about next winter. Through summer and early fall, conditions appear to be “neutral” with early signs of building El Nino conditions beginning later in the fall. In most years, a strong El Nino brings generous rains, but not always. Speculation, especially about future weather, is irresistible especially for weather buffs like myself.
When one of my friends fell on an icy path this morning and Gibraltar Dam flowed into its spillway, the first time since 2011, I decided that winter could not be ignored.
I hadn’t considered writing about Santa Barbara in the winter thinking that the season had been mostly passed by in these years of drought. Then yesterday, December 23, we had a storm that was worthy of qualifying as a winter storm in every way. The day began with a thin cloud cover which built during the morning to promising layers of clouds and brief gusts of wind, which by noon led to rain. After slacking off in a way that I had become used to during these dry years, the rain built again as if to defy my pessimism. By mid-afternoon the rain built to a real gully-washer. I was lucky enough to be in my car so I could enjoy splashing through flows of water at every intersection and best of all, seeing Mission Creek coursing down its creek bed after so many months of being bone dry.
From the sound of my bamboo wind chimes during the night, I knew the storm had passed to the east and the wind had shifted to the north as it does along the coast after a rain storm. The cold wind continues today pushing around remnant clouds, now empty of their contents.
I know storm must follow storm to make the creek a winter feature and the soil be soaked enough to start recharging the depleted water table. Lake Cachuma which lies in the valley between our mountains, the Santa Ynez, and the higher range to the east, is the reservoir which holds our water supply. At present, it’s almost no lake at all, having shrunk to less than 7% of its capacity. Vultures have taken to roosting on the rim of the dam.
December ended with the rainfall slightly above normal.
January was another matter altogether thanks to massive storms brought across the Pacific by an atmospheric river — a new word in my weather lexicon. An atmospheric river can be several thousand miles long to a few hundred miles wide. Drawing up moisture from near the Hawaiian Islands, the warm air can transport large amounts of rain. It’s what we once called the “Pineapple Express.’
The atmospheric rivers produced five days of good rains. At the end of January, rainfall for the month was 8.96 inches rather than a normal 2.86 inches. Even the lawns, most of which were allowed to go brown over the summer and fall, were green again.
The rains continued intermittently until Friday, February 17. The papers were advertising that the biggest storm of the season was on its way. Over the years, I have learned to be suspicious of such a build-up which often leads to disappointment. I believe in sneaker storms – the ones which arrive with little or no advance warning. That may be the old days before sophisticated weather-measuring equipment and computers, which can put together predictive models, eliminated much of the guesswork.
At 5 AM heavy rain was falling, serious, confident rain. By mid-morning the velocity of the rain continued to increase. Coarse and dense raindrops were being driven by gale winds from the south-east. By early afternoon, the rain had slackened enough to allow me to drive down to the Mission Creek just below us. Others had already gathered. Some of us stood on the bridge itself which was trembling with the force of the volume of water pouring a few feet beneath. On the opposite side of the bridge where the stream bed is narrowed by rock walls, boulders were being slammed together. The percussive, booming sounds resembled thunder. Some people, unnerved by the violence, hurried back to their cars. As a fan of such drama, I stayed put.
The storm finally moved on leaving 5-inches of rain downtown and heavier amounts on the mountain slopes. Mission Creek up Mission Canyon left its stream bed and temporarily carved out a new route. Further engorged by a cargo of mud, the stream poured over the old Indian Dam.
The gift for me was that Mission Creek became a real stream, a winter stream which flowed for weeks on end, not just for a day or two after a rain.
Now it’s early April and the creek has ceased to flow. It survived for few more days as isolated pools, until it disappeared altogether. I like to think that it continues to flow underground bringing moisture to the roots of the sycamores and to the other streamside plants.
Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary of Mission Creek in flood conditions.
Credit: Ray Ford
(Please note the material following the video is not part of this presentation.)
Take this week – in the middle of October. All day the clouds continued to build up against the mountains. And at bedtime, I heard an unfamiliar sound. Opening the door, I was surprised by rain. Pulling open the window next to my bed, I fell asleep to the comforting sound of rain falling, while breathing in that indescribable fragrance of earth refreshed. The morning that followed was the freshest we’ve had in this endless season of harsh drought.
By Wednesday, the temperature rose to 95 degrees, the humidity descended into the single digits, the red fire danger flags were posted. By the weekend the scene changed again. I could joyfully proclaim fall as it should be – a sky full of clouds of every shape in shades of gray and white. I’ve cracked open the door so I can feel the cool breeze and hear the birds as I work on my computer.
Nothing energizes the bird population like a change in the weather, especially when there is the possibility of rain. If you trust forecasts, rain may be moving our way, coming from the north, the most reliable direction.
Being an incurable nostalgic I remember days like this in the Bay Area we called the “second spring.” The first rain of the fall brought up sprouts of green grass on the hills, certain native plants set buds or even bloomed, and the birds began singing again. I guessed that maybe they were fooled by day and night equaling in length, the way it did during the spring equinox.
More knowledgeable birdwatchers than me, call this “second spring” “Autumnal Recrudescence,” a word new to me. Looking the word up, I read that it was most often a medical term meaning the return of an illness after a remission. Or it could mean the recurrence of an unpleasant feeling like doubt.
Naturalist give the word a happier meaning.
The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge
When the birds are cacophonic in the trees and on the verge Of the fields in mid-October when the cold is like a scourge. It is not delight in winter that makes feathered voices surge,
But autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
When the frost is on the pumpkin and when leaf and branch diverge, Birds with hormones reawakened sing a paean, not a dirge. What’s the reason for their warbling? Why on earth this late-year splurge? The autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
-Written by Susan Stiles, copyright December 1973
After the mostly silent late summer, I was delighted with the bird chorus. I also attributed it to the completion of energy-robbing activities like nesting followed by molting where in most species, every feather had to be replaced with a new one.
The arrival of the winter residents certainly energized the local, year-round population. The regulars and newcomers set about declaring and defending their winter territories.
Wanting to better understand fall in Santa Barbara sent me back to Joan Lentz’s “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region,” my bible on all things local. She says that the distinction between summer and fall is more pronounced than between spring and summer. Enter our old friend or nemesis The North Pacific High. If the atmosphere behaves as it should, this zone of high pressure which held sway over the summer, producing the northwest winds blowing down the coast and causing coastal fog, should begin to move south following the sun. Winds cease and with them the fog. A rain may even sneak through as it had last Sunday evening. With less fog, the skies are clearer and the blue skies are a palette for the extraordinary clouds of fall.
In the Berkeley Hills where I’ve lived most of my life, we especially dreaded the August fogs with their frigid winds when the gloomy, damp overcast could persist for days on end. When late September brought relief, we were ecstatic. Both in the Bay Area and in Santa Barbara, fall winds sometimes blew from the north and northeast, coming from the Great Basin, bringing the odors of sage and when passing over the mountains, the tangy smell of conifers.
Though Santa Barbara, by its location and topography, is spared the full impact of the Santa Anas (unlike the LA basin), we often have the offshore winds, heat, and lower humidity.
In my drives around town I look for autumn color to further affirm the change of season. Sycamores, which grow wherever there is a little ground moisture, have been dropping leaves all summer and even in the best of years are only a dusky gold, showing their best color when back lit by the sun. Liquidambars, also called sweet gum, a native to the southeast, are beginning to show their autumn color, but we will have to wait until late November for their best display.
Weary of my endless comparisons between Berkeley and Santa Barbara, my daughter decided it was time for a drive over the mountain to the Santa Ynez Valley, for a change of scene. And change of scene, indeed! What a difference a mountain range makes. The Santa Ynez Valley is hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. The continental influences prevail, moderated somewhat by the proximity to the coast and the ocean. But the sub-tropical trees in Santa Barbara’s parks and gardens would not succeed here.
This is the wide-open country of vineyards and olive orchards where the horse is king. Some ranches provide individual horse casitas with white stucco walls, tiled roofs, and individual corrals.
And, yes, I did find the color I was hoping for in the bright yellow cottonwoods growing along the dry Santa Ynez River watercourse. We like to be drenched in the fall brilliance of yellows, oranges, and red – this intoxicating dazzle – the final flaring before the bare trees in the dimming light and short days of winter.
But what pleased me the most were the ambers of the vineyards, the pale grasses long spent and all the other shades of gray-greens, ochers, umbers and shades of color for which I have no names — and the swirls and small bunches of white clouds against a soft blue sky.
Once I yearned to live in open country with only distant neighbors if any at all, under a curving sky with stars beyond counting, winds that travelled long distances unobstructed, and the distant yips and howls of coyotes.
But I was content enough to return back over the mountain, to the marine air which is kinder, and to a town of neighborhoods where lights in other windows comfort me. On the weekends, music and voices of children come up the hill from the city park below. Once the winter rains begin, I will hear the music of Mission Creek.
Yesterday, at the end of the month, the clouds thickened during the day. In the afternoon, a few large drops fell. The air felt dense and heavy, maybe rich in negative ions which some say lifts the spirits.
Around 3 am, we awoke to a long roll of thunder. For the next hour, lightning and thunder alternated, until the lightning seemed to rip open the heavy undersides of the clouds releasing a torrent which in a few minutes left behind a half inch of rain. At the end of the day, the clouds had retreated back to the mountains.
It appears that at last I have the intemperate Santa Barbara I had expected – a Santa Barbara of sundowner winds gusting down canyons, landslides, firestorms and debris flows, floods, thunder ricocheting off the
mountain sides, and on the coast, high surfs which rearrange beaches.
Is this the fall and winter which will end the drought? Such secrets are closely held. In the meantime, I look often at the sky, sniff the air, and even conger up promising clouds. It can’t hurt.